Parents in waiting: International adoption

With international adoption becoming harder, Canadians are facing the challenges with patience, and an open mind, in the quest to build their families

Last December, confronted by her 38th birthday and a new year, Amanda Ouellette took stock. “Here we are again — another year has passed,” she thought. “Let’s regroup.”

Ouellette and her husband, Gerry Vercaigne, 40, have been trying to adopt a child since 2005. Like many prospective parents at the time, they’d assumed they’d apply to China and adopt a little girl within two years. “I was shocked to learn more about China,” she recalls, “to realize, oh, it’s more like a five-year or six-year wait.”

The couple’s social worker had previously suggested domestic adoption, as birth moms get to choose the parents; the fact that Ouellette and Vercaigne were both French Canadian and Catholic might have appeal. Over time, they met three women — two of whom changed their minds and one the couple turned down because of the risk of alcohol exposure — and even had a brief pregnancy that, unfortunately, ended in miscarriage.

Early this year, they went back to their adoption agency and heard Ethiopia was accepting applications. With the program’s $30,000 price tag and two-year wait, plus the need to renew their home study and most of their documents, applying would be a serious investment of time and money. But the couple decided to do it.

“It’s a big change from what we thought. We got a little derailed along the way. But it all happens for a reason,” says Ouellette, of Mississauga, Ont. Her theory: Whichever child comes their way, in the end, will be the right one.

That’s an essential attitude for going through adoption today. Over the last decade, international adoption has become a popular way to grow a family, but it’s clear now that there was a heyday and that it has passed. The large, efficiently run programs out of countries like China have been followed — but not replaced — by a number of smaller programs, the details of which change constantly. To adopt an overseas baby today demands a long wait and sometimes additional fees; and more international adoptions involve older children or those with special needs.

Some prospective parents are stressing out. Others are turning to domestic adoption, which is also in transition — but for the better. There are new technologies to link parents with birth mothers, and more support programs once you’re a parent.

Despite the frustration and uncertainly, some, like Ouellette and Vercaigne, are still excited to be part of the adoption process. Would-be parents who are patient and flexible about how they define their families, who put the needs of kids first and who are willing to do their research can still find what they want in the end — a child to parent and love.

The big China slowdown

“China is and was the best adoption program in the world, full stop,” says Doug Chalke, executive director of Sunrise Family Services, an adoption agency in Vancouver. Matches happened quickly (in just seven months at one point), the children were healthy and concerns about corruption almost non-existent. In 2004, 1,001 Chinese adoptees came to Canada.

But that number has now been cut in half and the wait stretches to six years or more. The Children’s Bridge, one of Canada’s largest agencies, stopped taking applications for its mainstream China program last year. Instead, it’s focusing on China’s waiting children, who have minor medical problems, such as cleft palate or missing digits. The wait is two years.

The reasons for China’s slowdown are multiple, including more adoptions within the country. But some worry that many infant girls in China will never find families, as the country tries to fulfill the tenets of the 1993 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoptions, which it signed in 2005. The convention (which Canada signed more than a decade ago) tries to protect against corruption and trafficking, but also encourages nations to care for their own children and only adopt them out if that’s not possible. “A lot of [Chinese girls] are languishing in orphanages,” says Lawrence Morton, co-founder of Canada Adopts!, which runs a website that helps prospective parents connect with birth mothers.

Other countries are also shifting their adoption policies as attitudes toward international adoption change and acceptance of the Hague Convention grows (the United States started following it in 2008). At the peak in 1998, 2,222 children were adopted from other nations by Canadians; that number slipped to 1,713 in 2007. Experts say current numbers, when collected, will be even lower. “International adoption is coming to an end as we know it,” says Chalke.

The new world order

But not a complete end. The new world order, instead, features a mixed collection of countries with widely varied adoption programs including: Nepal, a new program; Kazakhstan, which has kids over age three; Bulgaria, which has Roma and Turk toddlers, rejected because of racism; Haiti, where fees are lower, but the process and wait times are unpredictable; and Ethiopia, where famine and AIDS have left numerous babies and toddlers needing families.

These programs all have different paperwork requirements and different rules regarding adoptive parents’ age and marriage status. And they’re all incredibly busy. “Adoption today is the equivalent of Main Street at five o’clock,” says Chalke. “It’s adoption gridlock.” When new programs open, thousands around the world rush their dossiers there. Backlogs follow. That — along with international attitudes that increasingly favour keeping children in their homelands — can inspire new countries to tighten up rules, restrict numbers and even shut down. “Things change every single day,” says Chalke, who finds his agency must update its website every couple of days.

Once parents make the tough call of where to apply, they must tackle that country’s requirements. Sandra Forbes, executive director of Ottawa-based Children’s Bridge, says the paperwork for Kazakhstan, for instance, is intense and must be constantly updated. “It’s a lot more work for our staff, and it’s more expensive.” Clients of the non-profit agency face higher fees. As well, agencies are struggling with shifting timelines — over which they have no power — and disgruntled applicants who compare what they read on Internet chat rooms with news from their agencies.

“Families today have to go with the flow,” says Forbes. Paperwork glitches and the occasional minor health problem are typical in international adoption, and those who are flexible cope best.

Adapting online

Waiting and wondering about the next big change in international adoption, parents-to-be are taking charge via technology. Red Sand (her online identity) started a page on MySpace and then a blog around the time her and her husband’s adoption file was sent to China at the end of 2005. The blog was meant mainly for family. “When the wait started to change, it became a way to vent as well as share information,” says the 34-year-old Maritimer. Over the years, she’s met people — mostly online — in similar situations from across North America, and now follows about a hundred other blogs. And now that the family’s wait is coming to an end (they were matched with twin two-year-old boys and expected to travel around late July), Red Sand’s old entries remind her how emotional the process has been. “I can see where I was then and where I am now. It’s a lot more hopeful now.”

While blogs are helping parents connect with one another and blow off steam, websites such as CanadaAdopts.com, AdoptionProfiles.ca and AdoptionConnections.ca are helping to make domestic matches possible. Prospective parents — from BC, Ontario and Nova Scotia (provincial laws exclude those from some other provinces) — can list profiles on these sites for fees starting around $375. And birth mothers from anywhere in Canada can see them for free. This electronic version of the paper-based profiles women can view at adoption agencies opens up access for both sides. “It levels the playing field for people; it lets them get out there,” says Morton. “Most birth parents today, they’ve grown up digitally. It’s the first place they go when they have questions.” His site’s been up since 2001 and makes about six matches a year.

Katharine and Barry Currie of London, Ont., had spent thousands getting their profile listed with various adoption professionals across the province in 2007. Then the couple posted some pictures and information about themselves on Canada Adopts! Just nine days later, they got a call from a woman explaining that her son’s girlfriend was pregnant. It turned out that the teenage couple liked the profile of the Curries, and felt they looked like an older version of themselves.

A whirlwind month of legal paperwork and fees later (domestic adoptions cost too: as much as $25,000 in total), the Curries found themselves in a hospital room holding their brand new son, Ethan.

Now, the couple maintains a website of pictures of their 19-month-old and, last spring, began uploading videos of Ethan onto YouTube. His birth mother adores these images and always posts comments in response, although she has yet to visit. “I don’t know what we’d do without all this technology,” says Katharine. “Without it, we wouldn’t have the same connection with Ethan’s birth mom.”

Domestic innovations

Technology won’t change the fact that there are just a few hundred domestic adoptions of newborns a year in Canada — a number that’s been stable for decades. But those who work in so-called public adoption hope the shrinking state of international adoption will put more focus on the 22,000 Canadian kids needing permanent homes. These are Canada’s waiting children, who have been removed from their parents’ care by the courts. Some are babies, but most are over three. Some have special needs, and almost all have emotional issues because of their past.

Sandra Scarth, chair of the Adoption Council of Canada, hopes a renewed interest in these children has already begun: In 2004 (the most recent numbers she has to compare), there were more domestic than international adoptions for the first time in recent Canadian history.

The rise is happening in provinces like New Brunswick, where the government established the New Brunswick Adoption Foundation to help find families for kids in care. Since its inception in 2002, public adoptions jumped from just 25 a year to an average of 100. Clare and John Sanborn* saw television ads about waiting children around the time that they decided to adopt. With Clare turning 38 and John 36, the couple felt they did not want to raise an infant, plus they had concerns about taking a child from her native country.

But when children’s services in Saint John presented them with a sister and brother of 10 and 12, John said the officials must be crazy; the couple had agreed age seven was their cap. Still, the kids were smart and well adjusted, and shared similar interests as the Sanborns. They decided to take the leap.

That was two years ago. The first year, in particular, was tough: The kids’ birth mother died, the boy didn’t tell his friends that he was adopted, and the girl tested her adoptive mom at every turn. “There were moments when I wanted to give up,” says Clare. Support from the community, friends and family got the couple through.

Finalizing the adoption helped, as did the pivotal day Clare took her daughter to emergency after a trampoline accident. The girl was terrified of needles and was flipping out. Clare took control and pinned the girl down herself. “She was shocked. Someone was finally as strong as she was and taking control. That’s when I felt like a parent the most.”

Now the Sanborns are enjoying their kids, cheering on their son at his basketball and rugby games, and celebrating silently when their daughter’s friends call. “It’s quite delightful to watch them grow up,” says Clare. “I’m so glad we went this route.”

*Names changed by request.

Alberta is also a leader in public adoption. The province posts children’s profiles and pictures on a publicly accessible web page (child.gov.ab.ca/home; click on For Parents, and then Adoption) and highlights waiting children on weekly TV spots (75 percent of these kids are adopted).

More importantly, Alberta financially supports families who adopt kids with special needs. The Supports for Permanency Program dates back to 1990, and it keeps expanding its scope so that it now offers parents, no matter what their income, 100 percent of basic foster care rates for children in permanent government care (about $600 a month) and extra money for things like counselling or, if a child is aboriginal, travel costs back to his band. “These are our kids and we want to achieve permanence for them,” says Anne Scully, senior manager of adoption and permanency services at the Ministry of Children and Youth Services of Alberta. “It helps the adoptive families to feel they are supported.”

Increasing promotion and support of public adoption in these and other Canadian provinces may draw more prospective parents to consider this approach to building a family. But it’s still a tough sell. “When you think about older kids in foster care compared to infant international adoption, it’s apples and oranges,” says Suzanne Kingston, executive director of the New Brunswick Adoption Foundation. Raising a child with a difficult past or special needs is not for everyone, no matter how flexible, giving and resourceful they are.

The world of adoption is changing. And while more so-called waiting children from abroad and from Canada may find homes as a result, some young ones in nations like Korea, the Philippines and Guatemala (countries that limit adoptions) could suffer. And prospective parents here are feeling the strain. Adoption has always been a process that requires considerable soul-searching, but today’s climate demands even more from would-be adoptive parents. The best advice? Research, wait and, above all, hope.

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